Amendments to The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act were passed by Parliament last month. The Act, which came into force in 2012, is the first comprehensive law in the country dealing specifically with sexual abuse of children. The amendments to the Act include enhancement of punishment to include death penalty for child sex abuse.
Why was the POCSO Act introduced, and what is its significance?
The Act came into force on November 14, 2012, and was specifically formulated to deal with offences including child sexual abuse and child pornography. The Act through its 46 provisions increased the scope of reporting offences against children, which were not earlier covered under the Indian Penal Code. This included aggravated penetrative sexual assault to include punishment for abuse by a person in position of trust or authority including public servants, police, armed forces, management or staff of an educational or religious institution.
It also defined the procedure for reporting of cases, including a provision for punishment for failure to report a case or false complaint. It provided procedures for recording of the statement of a child by the police and court, laying down that it should be done in a child-friendly manner, and by the setting up of special courts.
What are the amendments passed by the Parliament?
The Act has enhanced punishment under various sections of the Act including punishment for aggravated penetrative sexual assault to be increased to include death penalty.
Other sections under which the punishment has increased includes the minimum punishment for penetrative sexual assault, which has been increased from seven years to 10 years — and, if the child is below 16 years of age, the minimum punishment has been increased to 20 years.
The Act has also tightened the provisions to counter child pornography. While the earlier Act had punishment for storing child pornography for commercial purposes, the amendment includes punishment for possessing pornographic material in any form involving a child, even if the accused persons have failed to delete or destroy or report the same with an intention to share it.
The Act has also removed the words “communal or sectarian violence”, which had punishment for a person who sexually abused a child during the course of such violence. The words have been replaced with “violence during any natural calamity or in similar situations”.
Why were these amendments brought?
Union Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani cited a report of the National Crime Records Bureau from 2016 indicating an increase in the number of cases registered under the said Act “from 44.7 per cent in 2013 over 2012, and 178.6 per cent in 2014 over 2013, and no decline in the number of cases thereafter”.
She said there was a strong need to take stringent measures to deter the “rising trend of child sex abuse” in the country to “deter the perpetrators and ensure safety” for a child.
The government has argued that there was a need to make rules for prescribing a manner in which pornographic material involving a child can be deleted, destroyed or reported.
What was the feedback/criticism the amendment Bill received from child rights experts?
Many have criticised the provision for death penalty that has been added to the Act. Reports by NGOs working with children, as well as the latest National Crime Records Bureau’s Crime in India Report, 2016, state that over 94 per cent of the accused in cases registered under The POCSO Act, are known to the victims, including close family members. This may deter victims, or put pressure on them to not file a complaint, given the possibility of death now.
Further, while the Act states that the cases should be heard expeditiously, the pendency rate as per the NCRB is over 89 per cent.
“In a recent case in Mumbai, the mother of a child victim pleaded with the court to not insist on her daughter coming to depose before it, years after the incident, since she had been brought out of the trauma through a lot of counselling with much difficulty. The delays affect the probability of conviction despite the stringent sections,” a prosecutor in a Mumbai court said.
The conviction rate is less than 30 per cent under the Act. Last month, the Supreme Court directed the setting up of special courts in each district across the country within sixty days over the alarming rise of pendency.